Are more pupils really taking arts subjects?

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Schools Week last week published a handy summary of Ofqual’s release of summer 2017 examination entry statistics.

It notes that entries in EBacc subjects have risen whilst entries in other subjects have fallen. This raises the question of whether the EBacc is crowding other subjects out of the curriculum.

In defence of the EBacc, Schools Week quoted a Telegraph article from 2016 in which Nick Gibb, the schools minister, claimed that the percentage of pupils entered for at least one GCSE in an arts subject (art and design, music, or performing arts) increased from 46% to 50% between 2011 and 2015.

In addition, a report by New Schools Network from earlier this year also showed that the percentage of pupils entered for at least one GCSE in an arts subject increased from 45% to 48% between 2012 and 2016. (The author does not mention the drop from 50% in 2015 to 48% in 2016, however).

Both of these claims are factually correct, but they only tell half the story.

The impact of Wolf

Back in 2011 and 2012 it was much more common for pupils to be entered for qualifications other than GCSEs, such as BTECs. Since changes to the performance tables by which schools are judged following the Wolf Review of 2011, there has been a shift away from ‘equivalent’ qualifications, back to GCSEs.

The chart below shows the percentage of Year 11 pupils entered for at least one arts subject between 2011 and 2016. Although the percentage of pupils entered for arts GCSEs did increase between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of pupils entered for any qualification in an arts subject actually fell slightly.

Percentage of pupils entered for at least one arts qualification at Key Stage 4, 2011 to 2016

Our view is that the EBacc itself is not driving behaviour – we would need more teachers of modern foreign languages for it to do so.

Rather, it is the wider reforms to performance tables introduced following the Wolf Review of 2011 that are.

Far fewer qualifications are now eligible to be included in performance tables, and, unlike under the previous system of ‘equivalences’, no qualification is now considered to be equivalent to more than a single GCSE.

These changes were first applied to the 2014 performance tables and we showed at the time in this blogpost and this one the marked effect they had on the types of qualification pupils entered.

The increase in GCSE entries in arts subjects appears to be nothing more than a shift away from ‘equivalent’ qualifications back to GCSEs.

Overall, proportionately fewer pupils are taking arts qualifications than in the recent past and there is no reason not to suspect that we will see a further drop when 2017 examination data becomes available.

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By | 2017-10-23T12:43:11+00:00 June 23rd, 2017|Exams and assessment, School accountability|

About the Author:

Dave Thomson is Chief Statistician at FFT with over fifteen years’ experience working with educational attainment data to raise attainment in local government, higher education and the commercial sector. His current research interests include linking education and workplace datasets to improve estimates of adult attainment and study the impact of education on employment and benefits outcomes.

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